Survivors: Series Nine: Starring Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, George Watkins, Helen Goldwyn, Joel James Davison and Hywel Morgan. Written by Jane Slavin, Christopher Hatherall, Roland Moore and Andrew Smith. Directed by Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
It’s the end, to coin a phrase, but the moment has been prepared for.
Survivors, like several other ideas in the mind of Terry Nation, has lived on far beyond its creator, and has taken directions that have made it chillingly relevant even in an age beyond that in which it’s set. The coming of ‘the Death,’ the plague that wiped out most of the world’s human beings, feels like a generation ago, a fact subtly underlined in Jane Slavin’s opening episode of this box set, The Farm, by the fact that young women of childbearing age can’t remember exactly how old they are, because their parents died when they were young and so precision about such things has been lost. The world our survivors used to know is gone, and even the world of the immediate aftermath, of paranoia, fear, and violation-danger, particularly for women, has curled around the edges into something more horribly productively-minded. In The Farm, Jenny (Lucy Fleming) is being kept, along with lots of other women, on the farm run by would-be British Supremo, Meg Pritchard (Richenda Carey). The conditions are primitive and unsanitary, the food rations small, and by the use of strict segregation of men and women that might not be quite as strict as it’s made out to be, there’s a degree of human-farming going on without anything so vulgar and authoritarian as a forced breeding program. But ask yourself – in a human farm, what happens to women when they hit the menopause?
Strap in for this one, it’s funny and hopeful and dark and vicious and the silver thread of psychopathic human-using evil runs glistening through Richenda Carey’s Meg Pritchard, as she tries first to subvert Jenny to her cause, make her a trustee to be bought off with little luxuries that mean the world, and then, when that fails, to put her and her friends down as they make a break for it. Listen out for Issy Van Randwyck as Beryl and Lizzie Stables as Victoria, a pair of characters that show from different angles the commoditisation of women in this environment, each doing their bit to harden Jenny’s resolve to break Pritchard’s power. Above all, there’s a sense of realistic women together in captivity that’s too often missing from modern TV drama, and which would be enormously welcome there. It’s welcome here too, showing the strength, resilience and nous of women under pressure.
If you want a story with an interesting and intense single central set-up, you go to Christopher Hatherall, because he has some serious form in Survivors when it comes to delivering nitty-gritty stories about the actual, practical ‘hows’ of bad situations – in Series Six, he wrung every last drop of tension from a story mostly set in a great big hole in the ground (The Trapping Pit – worth a re-listen). Here, he takes us into a coal mine, because yay, more holes in the ground! More seriously, Hearts And Mines is more than just a play on words, it’s the beginnings of a real fracture between our chosen group of survivors, the group loosely identified as the Federation, with Craig (George Watkins) wanting to strike at the heart of the survivors-come-lately, the Protectorate, run by Captain Robert Malcolm (Hywel Morgan) on behalf of Meg Pritchard. Abby Grant though is torn between what she knows is the right thing, ethically speaking, and what her intuition tells her, which is that she has to rescue her son Peter (Joel James Davison) from the clutches of Malcolm and the brutal military lifestyle in which Peter’s been raised in her absence. The division comes to a head when the Federation gang try to seal off a coal mine to save the workers from Protectorate oppression. Tense, sweaty, and unexpected, the episode brings common sense and instinct into sharp conflict. Where will Abby’s true loyalties lie when every single chip is down? You’ll know by the end of this episode.
Fade Out, by Roland Moore, is a purposefully shocking episode of Survivors, reviving some of the initial series’ horror value, as some of our Federation friends hold out in an old cinema against the encroaching forces of Robert Malcolm and Peter Grant. It’s one of those crisis-point episodes of Survivors where allegiances crystallise, horror pushes people to extremes and souls are won and lost – not everybody makes it out of Fade Out alive, and the repercussions of the events here break friendships, force dark alliances and finally push one character over a line of definition from which there may be no return.
And finally, Andrew Smith, master of early Survivors and its philosophical questions of exactly how you re-establish a society you recognise or like in the aftermath of a cataclysm, returns to the series for the final episode of the full-cast audio Survivors. In Conflict, he forces events to what was probably always their inevitable conclusion in a post-Death world – when there are groups with differing ideologies competing for control of resources, you don’t get peace until you win a war, until your enemies are routed, defeated or killed. There are historical precedents for this idea going back at least as far as ancient Rome, and Andrew Smith delivers a final clash between the forces of the Protectorate and the Federation, between the brutal authoritarianism of Pritchard and Malcolm and the firm but fair comparative civilisation of Jenny and Ruth (Helen Goldwyn), that has that sort of epic scope, where instinct and rational decision-making are at odds, where choices are made, a watching populace pick a side and there are fatal consequences that decide what the future of Britain in the post-Survivors era is going to look like. It’s by no means all happiness and light – our survivors are irrevocably split, there will be trials and probably further executions, and at least a couple of banishments give a note of realistic sourness to the ending of a series as dark and bright and brilliant as Survivors on audio has been. The very last note of the series is a careless welcome given to a world-changing event – leaving us as listeners to imagine whether that welcome will herald a brave new era, or the beginning of a whole new level of conflict.
Survivors on audio has been one of the most traumatic, philosophically fascinating, realistically human, hopeful, dark, gritty and horrifying series in Big Finish history. It has never been anything less than breath-taking in its writing and its performance. It has expanded massively on the legend established by Terry Nation and the TV writers, and it ends with a set of stories as emotionally exhausting, as pulse-racing and as inventive as any in the series. If you’ve come this far with the audio version of Survivors, it’s a massive pay-off of all your investment and a suitably bittersweet resolution of the long story-arcs that have seen characters pushed to their limits and beyond by the challenge of surviving the end of the world as we know it.
Listen to Survivors Series Nine – then take a long breath, have a cup of tea, look at the world around us… And go back to the beginning for one more apocalypse. Tony Fyler